As developments related to the Libyan crisis pick up pace, Egypt has stepped up political and military preparations in connection with the Sirte-Jafra “red line” that Egypt has defined as the western boundary of its national security realm, in the event that forces fighting for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) attempt to advance further eastward. Cairo has simultaneously urged the international community to press for a ceasefire along this line and to compel the GNA and the Libyan National Army (LNA) to deescalate and return to the negotiating table in the framework of the outputs of the Berlin Conference and the Cairo Declaration that seek to advance the UN-sponsored peace process for Libya.
Ankara, by contrast, remains bent on the military solution. It continues to reject all ceasefire initiatives out of hand as it ratchets up its military supplies to the GNA, intensifying its belligerent rhetoric, saying that there is nothing to compel it to adhere to the Sirte-Jafra line or to ceasefire initiatives.
Although the battle between Cairo and Ankara has so far confined itself to rhetorical outbursts and diplomatic manoeuvres, the likelihood of a slide into a military clash is increasing while the prospects for a political settlement are receding. Both sides have staged a series of military manoeuvres. The Egyptian army’s Hasm 2020 drills near the border with Libya were meant to convey the message that Egypt will act with resolve in order to defend its national security.
Turkey responded with sabre rattling in the form of naval manoeuvres off the coast of Libya. Both sides then moved to bolster their respective allies in Libya. Cairo helped the Libyans build an anti-occupation resistance army, made up of Libyan tribes, to supplement the ranks of the LNA, which is fatigued after six years of fighting radical forces. In addition to more shiploads of military hardware to the GNA, Ankara has increased its shipments of mercenaries to supplement the GNA’s attack force that is preparing to breach the Sirte-Jufra red line.
But even as they escalate verbally and posture militarily, some factors might be working against a military conflagration. One is the alarming prospect of a clash between two regional powers the size of Egypt and Turkey which are roughly equivalent in military might.
The repercussions of a military locking of horns between them in Libya would reverberate well beyond that encounter to throw havoc into the balances of power throughout the entire Middle East. Both sides are aware of this. This is why President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, in his meeting with representatives of Libyan tribes last week, stressed that the Sirte-Jufra line was the “peace line”, meaning the line to conclude a ceasefire and restart the political process. Turkey, too, seemed to soften its rhetoric somewhat, saying that it did not want a military confrontation with Egypt.
It appears, therefore, that the warring parties and their backers appreciate that their options are limited. Every option comes at a cost and with obligations. For example, escalation can only aggravate the complexities of the Libyan crisis and put the prospects of a solution further out of reach. This is all the more the case given that the record of modern warfare in the Middle East tells us that there is no such thing as a “winner” and “loser” in regional conflicts but only a redrawing of lines and balances of power that accompany stakeholders to the negotiating table. As the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz put it, war is a continuation of politics by other means.
On the other hand, the political option also has its red lines that can be adhered to while averting the slide into war. Egypt took the lead with the Cairo Declaration, a peace initiative it proposed to Aguila Saleh, speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives. This position rests on the principles of international legitimacy and the framework of the UN-sponsored process to resolve the Libyan crisis (as manifested in the political, economic and military tracks that were the outputs of the Berlin Process).
At the same time, Cairo set the Sirte-Jufra line as the limit to the political, military and economic ambitions of the GNA, an unelected body that has forfeited its legitimacy under the Skhirat Agreement, as a result of its behaviours. Most importantly, here, the GNA concluded an illegitimate pact with a foreign power to help it monopolise government and secure control over the sources of Libyan wealth in exchange for channelling much of that wealth into Turkish coffers and private pockets.
Egypt also maintains that security reform must not serve as a pretext to exclude the LNA in favour of illegal militias, and that social reform must not serve as a pretext to exclude authentic Libyan tribes in favour of a Turkish-backed ideological organisation such as the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood or its offshoots in Misrata, in order to advance the political and economic fortunes of a non-Arab axis in Libya.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly